And because the Cowboys were able to deal with the emotions of a gut-wrenching weekend that saw one of their practice squad players killed in an auto accident and another teammate charged with intoxication manslaughter, they were able to deal with the Bengals and leave Paul Brown Stadium with a 20-19 win.
Make no mistake, though, the emotion ran high, and the Cowboys' pain at the death of practice squad lineman Jerry Brown cut deep. The mix of feelings was only exacerbated by the reality that nose tackle Josh Brent spent the day in jail, charged with alleged drunk driving that led to the death of his college roommate and friend.
"I told our team," coach Jason Garrett said after the Cowboys kept their playoff hopes alive, "this is uncharted territory."
The Cowboys draped Brown's jersey across the bench during the game; after it was carried off the field by DeMarcus Ware.
Lawrence Vickers' voice broke in the locker room as he talked about the fact he was blessed to be able to wake up to play Sunday when a teammate did not.
Tony Romo candidly admitted "there's no playbook for this kind of thing in life."
And Garrett talked eloquently and at length about what he tried to tell the team after relaying the news of Brown's death.
"He loved being part of our team," Garrett said. "And he showed it every day."
"This is hard for everybody to handle . . . " Garrett said. "We lost a 25-year-old man who had his whole life in front of him."
Garrett, to his credit, did not trivialize what happened by saying the team used football to get past their emotions. He talked as if the team faced the emotion in honest and true ways, and he merely said he told the team the best way they could honor Brown was to play well.
"There was a feeling of numbness on the field," Garrett said. "But they focused and found a way to win."
The Cowboys did it by doing what everyone does when they deal with death or tragedy — they keep living, and do their jobs. Dallas struggled for three quarters, but managed to hang around as the Bengals could not extend a third-quarter lead of 19-10.
In the end, the Bengals contributed to their own defeat.
They dropped three interceptions.
They had some bizarre play-calling. With BenJarvus Green-Ellis averaging 7.4 yards per carry, they threw and threw and threw. When Dallas cut the lead to 19-17, the Bengals got the ball with 6:35 left and threw five passes in a row. Green-Ellis' last run came with 11:59 left and the Bengals up nine. Dallas only gave the Bengals one more possession and it was all pass.
They also had two critical drops by standout receiver A.J. Green. One would have been a touchdown on a slant that was set up perfectly, the other would have kept a drive alive for a first down. Receivers don't catch them all, but to see it happen to Green was borderline shocking.
"It starts with me," said Green, who sat at his locker and waited to address the media after the game. "As I go the team goes."
The Bengals also wasted their second-half timeouts early, and when they needed them late so they could stop the clock and get the ball back with time left, they didn't have one.
Cincinnati had a sloppy game on an important day.
"It's disappointing to lose a game that you have in hand, and then lose in the last two drives," coach Marvin Lewis said.
The Bengals forced the Dallas offense into some very poor possessions. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins almost controlled the game for three quarters. Too, Pittsburgh and Baltimore both lost, which would have put the Bengals in position to control their playoff fate.
Instead, they let Romo get hot in the fourth quarter. After throwing for 140 yards the first three quarters, Romo threw for 128 on 11-for-15 passing in the fourth. Included was a 27-yard dart to Dez Bryant that cut Cincinnati's lead to two. He followed by using the final 6:35 to set up Dan Bailey's game-winning 40-yard field goal on the game's last play.
"The whole team is thinking about plays that could have been made or should have been made," linebacker Manny Lawson said. "It's hard for everyone."
But what was hard for the Bengals couldn't compare to what the Cowboys were experiencing, and everyone, including the Bengals, understood that truth.
"It is a day that I am never going to forget," Garrett said of his finding the way to win. "However it is a tragic day for all of us. We will never forget about Jerry Brown."